Psychological safety

We all know that keeping the team effective and productive is something difficult to create and easy to lose. Similar to building trust goes the atmospheric sense of psychological safety. Maybe you have heard of Google’s study on effective teams. Psychological safety was the first and most important thing: we couldn’t agree more.

If we feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of our team, we can learn from our failures, overcome obstacles and challenges, and be creative in finding innovative solutions. Innovation, however, is needed for business growth (another element of #superagile). And so is constant learning.

In the realm of technology, there’s a constant stream of new frameworks and tools being introduced. Remaining loyal to a particular tool simply out of habit could result in the loss of both time and money.

Robert Kiyosaki has said: “In today’s fast-changing world, it’s not so much what you know anymore that counts, because often what you know is old. It is how fast you learn. That skill is priceless.” But for learning, we need a safe environment.

For assessing this separately, two questions (graded on a scale) can be asked anonymously:

  • Do I feel comfortable enough that I can ask when there is something I don’t understand?
  • Can I express my thoughts even when they diverge from the opinions of others?

What it feels like

Best case

  • Everyone thinks along and provides ideas in the meeting, without having to be asked
  • Constant innovation, with everyone having a mindset to learn new things
  • All members trust each other to do what is best for the team
  • All risks and delays are brought up, discussed and prioritized

Worst case

  • Low engagement in meetings
  • Minimal innovation and learning
  • Helicopter management, i.e. constant micromanagement
  • Potential risks and delays hidden, instead of discussed

Creating the baseline

Psychological safety is about making sure that everyone can be themselves and express ideas without fear of being judged or badly treated for it. It also includes trust in team members, in addition to open and honest feedback. Creating this in the team is a responsibility of the team lead, but everyone is required to adhere to it. The end goal of this point is to ensure that we create an environment of learning and innovation - so stupid questions would be asked and knowledge could be acquired quickly. We believe a good baseline of psychological safety to be:

  • Cultivate a no-blame culture: guide the team to solve problems and improve processes, not on finding whose fault something was.
  • Written team agreements - everyone should know what behavior they can expect from others and what other members expect from them.
  • Emphasizing that no question is dumb if you learn something by asking it.

When building psychological safety, a key component is having regular 1:1’s with team members and also bringing up the topic of psychological safety. In a team with great psychological safety, this might not even be necessary, but initially there will likely be topics that team members do not feel safe to share and discuss together. For example, any smaller strifes with other team members or bigger changes in processes.

How to thrive?

A big part of thriving with psychological safety is to empower more junior members of the team. When a team member has been working on the same domain for a long time, a lot of the things are common sense to them. However, lots of the things might not actually make sense, but have just been the way things have been done for whatever reason. In these situations, junior members can greatly contribute to more innovation in the team, provided that they feel psychological safety. Thriving with psychological safety means all team members feeling themselves part of the team and contributing without fear of judgement. A few examples of additional improvements to thrive:

  • Team members having a great understanding of others and their background, beliefs and customs, which can be facilitated with various team building workshops and also getting together outside of regular work.
  • Everyone in the team feels accountable for team agreements and it is regularly reviewed with the team.
  • Keeping discussions in public or team channels instead of private, so everyone could learn and knowledge would not be in silos.
  • Requiring a proper explanation for each dismissed idea and why it doesn’t work, so that the person proposing the idea would learn why something doesn’t fit.
  • Asking questions directly from team members who are more reserved with expressing their ideas and thoughts to involve more members into a conversation.
  • Having open sharing sessions about incidents and what caused them in the team and the company, for a chance to learn what not to do.